Following the Olympics and a three-game trip west, many of the Blues are still getting re-acclimated. To that end, the team finally came home and played at Scottrade Center on Tuesday.
It was fun while it lasted. Let’s do it again real soon.
The one-game homestand was consummated with a 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay before the Blues left town Wednesday afternoon to embark on another three-game road swing, which starts with a stop tonight in Nashville.
For a group that has 10 players that were involved in the Olympics, the travel has been a tough turnaround. That’s to say nothing about laundry challenges.
For Ryan Miller, the upheaval has been especially demanding. In the midst of all the jet-setting, the Team USA goaltender got traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the Blues. That involved more time-zone tripping.
But getting acclimated to his surroundings isn’t just about sleeping habits, restaurants or MapQuest. Miller is in a whole new world professionally, which became clear at Scottrade Center on Tuesday. As a backstop in Buffalo, Miller was facing shots in bunches. The Sabres are allowing 35 shots per game, or as they say in Buffalo, “Whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant.”
Playing his first home game for his new team, Miller was tested with 17 shots, the fewest the Blues have allowed all season. He made 15 saves to record one of the least-contested wins of his 11-year career. That’s an average of five saves per period, or one every four minutes. At that rate, you can cook perfect soft-boiled eggs between saves.
Miller, aka “The Thin Man,” is nothing if not dedicated. He is a student of the craft, a technician of the position, mad about pads.
“His work ethic, his focus, his love for goaltending is out of this world,” said David Backes, who played with Miller in back-to-back Olympics.
For Miller, this new environment, this contrast in shot counts, isn’t a question of good or bad. It’s just different, something to be studied and resolved.
“I’m just going to have to get really familiar with our last 15-20 games on tape,” Miller said. “I kind of have see where things are happening and get used to the guys. And from there, it’s always going to be hockey.
“You’re going to have to make a save at some point. It’s still the NHL, there’s going to be opportunities; I’m just going to have to be ready for the shots when I get them. It’s more just getting into the rhythm of the team and being familiar with the other guys.”
So it is with the Blues, who are second in the league when it comes to shots-against. The Note is allowing 26.4 per game, or roughly one more than New Jersey. The paradox lies in the quality of the shots. It is, in some ways, a worst-case scenario for a goaltender.
There often aren’t enough shots to keep a goaltender in a good sweat. But when shots come, they often are the most dangerous kind. It helps explain, to some extent, the inconsistent texture the Blues have experienced in goal, helps explain why they were in the Miller market.
“We’re a hard group to gauge a goalie over a short period of time,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We don’t give up a lot of shots, but when we give them up, they’re doozies. So we’re a hard group to evaluate. I think over time, it takes some getting used to for a goaltender.
“You know you’re not going to get a ton of shots-against, but the team is going to give up some big ones. Like (Tuesday), the game’s 3-2 and (Miller) makes a great save right in the middle of the slot there, I mean, 15 feet away, point-blank. That’s the type of goaltending we need to move forward.”
There is something else the Blues need from their goaltending — body language. His 33 years on earth, years as a No. 1 goaltender and an NHL All-Star, have given Miller the right kind. The Blues are still finding out about his playing demeanor. They may already benefit from his presence. In both of Miller’s starts, the Blues were behind 2-0 before rallying for wins.
Without Miller, the team was 6-13-2 when the opponent scored first and 4-10-3 when trailing after one period. With him, they are 2-0 in both categories.
“I think as time moves on, we’ll get a better evaluation for Ryan as a goaltender,” Hitchcock added. “But I think his disposition and the way he carries himself. … He has a professionalism that rubs off on everybody, coaches, players. … Just from the time he comes into the building, the way he carries himself, he has a real positive effect on everybody.”
At the same time, St. Louis is giving Miller something he desperately needed. The Sabres are debris field, with players and presidents coming and going, with years of cleanup and rebuilding on the horizon. Miller is on the backside of his career. He wants to be part of something relevant, part of something vibrant.
The crowd at Scottrade on Tuesday helped him get oriented.
“That was really special,” he said. “I think it’s a great sports town. Everybody’s been telling me how great the fans are and how much they care about their sports teams and all the different sports. I think that’s pretty cool.
“I’m excited to be here. It’s a lot of fun to play in front of this crowd. They’re excited, energetic and the boys put on a good (effort). You can tell they draw energy from it. It’s really cool.
“Hopefully I can continue to give them something to cheer about with this group.”